The ‘swing State’ skew in the U.S. electoral framework

In his legal thriller, Too Close to Call , American lawyer Jeffrey Toobin portrayed the 36 anxiety-filled days following the U.S. presidential election of 2000 that culminated in one of the most stunning Supreme Court decisions in American history. A margin of only 537 votes in Florida made Republican George W. Bush defeat Democrat Al Gore in that election. In fact, with 29 electoral votes at the moment, Florida is a large ‘swing State’ in the U.S., having roughly an even number of Democrats and Republicans. Whoever won Florida became the President in all elections since 1928, except 1960 and 1992. However, the State of Ohio with 18 electoral votes is possibly a microcosm of the U.S. in a better way. Since 1896, the buckeye State has wrongly predicted the presidential election only in 1944 and 1960.

On electoral votes

First-past-the-post is a ‘plurality’ voting system where the candidate winning the most votes in a constituency is elected. While a ‘constituency’ means a Lok Sabha constituency in the general election in India, it is mostly a State in the U.S. presidential election. In 48 States and DC, the candidate winning most votes in a State receives all of that State’s electors; Nebraska and Maine are further divided in congressional districts. The U.S. ‘Electoral College’ has 538 electors, where an absolute majority of at least 270 electoral votes is required to win the election. Each State gets two electoral votes for its two U.S. Senators, and one more vote for each of its members in the House of Representatives. California has the maximum electors (55), while Alaska has only three electoral votes. And the Twenty-third Amendment, ratified in 1961, grants the District of Columbia the same number of electors as the least populous State.

Consequently, individual citizens in less populated States have proportionately more voting power than those in more populous States. Dividing the estimated population of the U.S. in 2019, obtained by the U.S. Census Bureau, i.e. 328,239,523, by the total electoral votes (i.e. 538), one electoral vote corresponds to every 610,111 people, on an average. However, remarkable variation exists between the States. Florida and Wyoming (with 29 and 3 electoral votes, and population figures of 21,477,737 and 578,759, respectively) have 740,612 and 192,920 people per electoral vote, respectively. Thus, while an average person of Florida has 82.4% clout of an average American in the Electoral College, an average person of Wyoming has 316.3%.

There are instances of losing the election despite getting more ‘popular votes’, even in this century. While U.S. President Donald Trump got 77 more electoral votes than Hillary Clinton inspite of getting 2.1% less nationwide popular vote share in 2016, George W. Bush won the presidency by a margin of only five electoral votes despite trailing 0.51% in popular vote share in the thrilling contest of 2000. Such a situation is not quite uncommon in India as well. In 2018, in the Karnataka Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had won 26 more seats despite getting 1.8% less votes than the Congress, while, in the Madhya Pradesh elections, the Congress won five more seats than the BJP although the BJP’s vote share was 0.13% more than that of Congress.

Campaigns and swing States

It is widely observed that most of the States in the U.S. have voted for the same party, the Republicans or the Democrats, in the most recent elections. However, some States occasionally ‘swing’ from one party to another. Thus, the key election strategy is to fix the campaign plan accordingly. For obvious reasons, there is not much point of desperate campaigning in States heavily inclined towards favouring either party. The list of ‘swing States’ certainly changes over time. In 2020, States such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Iowa feature prominently in this list. However, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa were not among the most competitive States according to a pre-election analysis of 2016.

The decisive vote

Had just 269 Republican votes been shifted in favour of Al Gore in Florida, it would have changed the outcome of the entire 2000 presidential election. And, astonishingly, that was nearly 0.00026% of the total number of U.S. votes. What then is the worth of a single vote in the U.S. presidential election? Certainly, the worth of a vote is bound to vary from constituency to constituency in a first-past-the-post system. In a 2012 research paper published in the journal, Economic Inquiry , Andrew Gelman, a professor of Statistics at Columbia University, Nate Silver of the poll aggregators ‘FiveThirtyEight’, and Aaron Edlin of the University of California, Berkeley, have estimated that the probability of a single vote being decisive in the U.S. presidential elections is, at most, about one in 10 million in a few States near the national median. This might even become one in million in the closest State. On the other hand, for voters in ‘safe States’ such as New York, California and Texas, the probability of a decisive vote is closer to one in a billion, which is effectively zero. Averaging these probabilities over all the States and weighting by turnout yielded a one in 60 million chance that a randomly selected voter would be decisive.

Electoral college matters

Overall, this is the structure of the U.S. presidential elections. Obviously, it is an unprecedented election in 2020 when a sitting President is up to his re-election bid amid a deadly pandemic ravaging the world and causing a tanking of the U.S. economy. While Democrat Joe Biden is leading at the moment according to most opinion polls, we must keep in mind that only the ‘electoral college’ matters in the U.S. elections — not the ‘popular votes’. And, the political balance in some ‘swing States’ is so evenly poised that the U.S. election might turn to be ‘Too Close to Call’. There is no scope of surprise even if the election is finally decided by only a few hundred votes in a State such as Pennsylvania, for example. The Florida episode of 2000 is still vivid in memory. And many Americans believe that the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the Supreme Court just before the election might become crucial in such a situation.

Atanu Biswas is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata